TRANSPORTATION IN CAMBODIA

TRANSPORTATION IN CAMBODIA

Cambodia is still as much a country of carts, motorcycles and pedestrians as one of cars and trucks. In both the cities and the countryside many get around in carts with a capacity if 20 or so people that are pulled by motorcycles. Many Cambodian still use oxcarts similar to the one pictured in the bas-reliefs at Angkor Wat.

Hundreds of motoscooters swarm the streets of Phnom Penh. Many of them are Honda Dream machines and Suzukis. Many drivers carry passengers and talk on their cell phones at the same time. Motorcycles carry entire families and a large variety of goods. Cambodia's motorcycle market is expected to grow from about 100,000 units in 2006 to 350,000 units in 2015.

Bicycles are piled with firewood, roots and greens. Motorcycles carry live pigs In the cities men who lost their legs to land mines ride around on wheeled platforms with hand cranks.

Urban Transportation in Cambodia

Motorcycle Taxis known as motodop are the most common way to get around in Phnom Penh, Angkor Wat, Siem Reap and other Cambodian cities and towns. They are fast but frightening (although they drivers will slow down and drive more carefully if you ask them.) They charge about $1 per ride. Agree on price before you set out. Helmets usually aren't available. Most people in Phnom Penh and the Angkor Wat hire a motorcycle and driver for the day for between $5 and $10. Arrangements are usually made with the hotels or drivers that hang around outside the hotels. Two people usually take two separate motorcycle taxis.

Cyclos are three-wheeled, human-powered vehicles with the driver sitting behind a seat that has a cover that can be raised in rainy weather. The seat is large enough to sit two Cambodians comfortably and two Westerners uncomfortably. Cyclos are found in Phnom Penh and Siem Riep and other towns. Their drivers generally charge one dollar for a ride and can be rented for the day for about $5.00.

Cyclos are slow but cheap, and a fun and unique way to get around. Their drivers tend to congregate around tourist areas and some of them can be very pushy. Some speak English and offer their services as guides. Make sure to negotiate the price before setting off. Cambodian cyclos are identical to those found in Vietnam.

Public Buses Introduced to Phnom Penh

In February 2014, Suy Se of AFP wrote: “Motorcycles, cars, tuk-tuks and the humble rickshaw dominate its traffic-clogged roads, but now the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh is launching a new weapon in the fight against chronic congestion: its first public buses in over a decade. Cambodia is lagging behind many of its Southeast Asian neighbours who long ago turned to public transport in a bid to ease traffic gridlock in major cities. The last time the kingdom tried to introduce public buses in the capital Phnom Penh in 2001, they were a flop. [Source: Suy Se, AFP, February 8, 2014 >>>]

“This time, the rapidly-developing country hopes that commuters are ready to swap the door-to-door convenience of motorbikes for the comfort and safety of public transport. "The main goal is reduce traffic jams," City Hall senior official Koeut Chhe told AFP. "We think that people understand about public transport now because some people used to travel overseas so they know about this kind of transport system." >>>

“There is growing frustration in Phnom Penh about daily traffic jams and fatal accidents in the city of about two million people, who compete for space on the roads with more than one million motorbikes and 300,000 cars. As part of a one-month trial, 10 air-conditioned buses have been running from 5.30 am until 8.30 pm on a single route up and down the length of busy Monivong Boulevard since February 5. If successful, more routes and buses will be added, Koeut Chhe said. >>>

“With a fare of 1,500 riels (35 cents), a bus journey is at least five times cheaper than taking a motorbike taxi -- locally known as "moto-dup" -- the most common transport in Cambodia. "I feel safe and cool riding a bus, and it's cheaper," 33-year-old passenger Doung Rattana said as she took a bus home for the first time from a market with her nephew. Many locals, including students and young and old people, have used the new public transport, some taking pictures and chatting with friends about the experience. >>>

“It is the second attempt by the City Hall and the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) to launch a public bus service to address traffic jams. A similar project in 2001 was scrapped after about two months due to lack of interest from the public. JICA said the circumstances nowadays are very different, with much heavier traffic on the road. "The time is ripe for public buses due to a change of mindset of citizens, who are concerned more about safety and comfort," said JICA spokesman Masahiko Egami. >>>

“However, it remains to be seen how popular the service will be in a city where the "moto-dup" is still king thanks to drivers waiting on street corners or outside markets to whisk passengers straight to their destination. Information Minister Khieu Kanharith recently wrote on Facebook that the previous trial was not successful because "most of the people wanted to be dropped right in front of their home, did not want to walk far and would not take a bus if they have belongings". "Let's hope it will be successful this time!" added Kanharith. >>>

“Travelling by moto-dup -- which sometimes carry two or more passengers -- is becoming increasing dangerous as the city becomes more developed and its streets fill with luxury cars and SUVs. Yet the drivers who rely on motorbike taxis for a living say they are not worried for their future. "The buses would take time so the people who are in a rush will still take moto-dup," driver Socheat said. >>>

Roads in Cambodia

Roads have never been very good in Cambodia. Long distance travel was traditionally been done on rivers in the wet season. The Mekong River is navigable by small ocean-going vessels as far as Phnom Penh. Shallow draft boats are necessary further upsetam.

Describing the journey between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, Heidi Fuller-Love wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “It was June, the wet season, so I wasn't surprised when rain started lashing down. I was taken aback, however, when the road fizzled out and became nothing but a muddy potholed track. By the time I reached Chong Khneas, a floating village on Tonle Sap lake about nine miles south of Siem Reap, my scooter was chocolate brown, and I looked as if I had indulged in a leisurely mud bath. [Source: Heidi Fuller-Love, Los Angeles Times, November 20, 2011 ^^^]

Luckily the rain stopped and I stripped to a T-shirt as steam rose from southeast Asia's largest freshwater lake. Hopping on a boat, I took the two-hour trip to Kompong Phluk, the lake's largest settlement, where I visited a prahok shed to see the hanging fish whose odoriferous fermented juices and flesh are used to make Cambodia's ubiquitous fish paste. That evening I was caught in the rain and stranded in the little town of Damdek. I managed to locate a homestay, where I slept under the eaves — with the family snoring on a mattress next to me and pigs snorting in their pen below. From Kampong Cham it was a three-hour trip on the N6 to the traffic-clogged Japanese Friendship Bridge — built in 1993 to replace the original bridge that was blown up in 1973 by the Khmer Rouge — and into Phnom Penh.

A traditional method road building used by the ancient Khmers has been resurrected. The road bed is covered by fist-size rocks and then covered by sand that hardens when dry. This kind of road bed drains well an erosion is less. Many of the road builts by the United Nations soon fell part from the wear and tear of heavy trucks, asphalt melting heat and road-bed-eroding rains.

In the early 2000s a 132-mile, $30 million U.S.-funded asphalt-concrete was opened between Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville, Cambodia's main port. In 2003, an 80-kilometer section of the Trans Asian Highway, connecting the suburbs of Ho Chi Minh City to the Cambodian border, was opened. Funded by the Asian Development Bank, the road between Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh City cost $144.7 million.

Bicycle Industry in Cambodia

In January 2013, the Independent European Daily Express reported: “Cambodia’s export business is in the process of changing due to shifts in manufacturing in Asia. A business publication in the country has reported unexpected growth in the “machinery and transport equipment” sector and speculated it was as [sic] “probably bicycles.” But when Cambodia jumped into the top ten exporters of bicycles to the EU in 2012, it prompted the European Bicycle Manufacturers’ Association (EBMA) to investigate. [Source: Independent European Daily Express, January 28th, 2013]

The EBMA discovered that bicycle companies had moved their production to Cambodia from Thailand and China, citing increased expenses. The move is estimated to save 14 percent on taxes. A favourable scheme is in place for Least Developed Countries (LDCs) under the Generalized Scheme of Preferences (GSP) known as the Everything But Arms (EBA) agreement. The EBA allows countries ranked among the 48 LDCs to export products duty-free to the EU, except arms and ammunition.

The Special Economic Zone (SEZ), according to a USAID report, offers pro-business perks to investors, a quick turnaround on red tape, low taxes, low wages, ease of doing business and a “young and educated” population. The report listed 1,500 workers in the bicycle industry. The minimum monthly salary then for factory work was 60 dollars a month, or 33 cents per hour, which would necessitate working six days per week to make 60 dollars monthly. Dated 2008, this shows that wages have not risen in four years.. Sihanoukville SEZ is located by Cambodia’s only full-fledges port. It is 70 hectares in size. It is being developed with ¥20 billion in loans from Japan. [Source: Independent European Daily Express, January 28th, 2013]

Automobiles in Cambodia

In March 2013, the Southeast Asia Globe reported: “It’s not a claim every country can make, but Cambodia builds its own cars. A country known for its low-skilled workforce, the Kingdom exceeded expectations with its January release of the Angkor Car, a mini-electric vehicle able to get up to 300 kilometers per charge. The tendency to buy high-end automobiles is also on the rise, growing 27 percent in 2011 compared to the year before, according to the World Bank. [Source: Southeast Asia Globe, March 8, 2013 /\]

“Reputable brands are lining up to enter the market: the first authorised BMW showroom broke ground in Phnom Penh in December, while banners plastered around the capital are teasers for the arrival of Mazda vehicles later this year. In good news for distributors, 2012 was a record-breaking year for a number of car brands. Toyota Cambodia reportedly sold 800 units, up from 500 in 2011, while Ford recorded 15 percent growth in sales.” /\

In November 2009, Chan Sovannara of AFP wrote: “Cambodia did actually assemble cars in a factory during the 1960s, before the country was caught in the maelstrom of the Vietnam War. During the brief manufacturing run, the car known as the "Angkor" was made from imported parts and domestically-made tyres. [Source: Chan Sovannara, AFP, November 28, 2009 \/]

“Very basic Cambodian-assembled vehicles also still regularly rumble around the countryside. Farmers often depend on "robot cows", large shop-made open-bed trucks with Chinese or Vietnamese engines, which are used to transport people and rice. The machines, which generally cost a couple of thousand dollars, also serve as generators or water pumps when they are not heaving along pot-holed rural roads. \/

“In the capital Phnom Penh, elites and the nascent middle class can often be seen driving expensive imports, which are considered a symbol of status and achievement. "(Cambodians) put more attention into their cars than the clothes they buy," says Jean Boris Roux, who imports Ford vehicles to Cambodia as the country manager for RM Asia. "I think it's very important for Cambodians to show the success in their professional life through the vehicles they drive," he adds.” \/

Traffic Accidents in Cambodia

Motorbikes account for 62.8 percent of fatalities in Cambodia, 58 percent in Malaysia and 61 percent in Indonesia. Government figures show that 1,076 people died on the roads in the first six months of 2011, up 14 per cent from 2010. This quite a lot considering few people in Cambodia can afford cars and there are relatively few vehicles on the road.

Traffic accidents in Phnom Penh increased by 33 percent on 2000. Factors that contributed to the accidents included people driving without licenses, under-age drivers and speeding. Left and right hand vehicles are used in Cambodia, where people drive on the right hand side of the road.. Right-hand cars are blamed for some accidents. Most of these vehicles are imported from Thailand where people drive on the left side of the road. Efforts to ban right-hand drive cars have largely been unsuccessful.

The Japanese have sponsored a traffic safety program in Phnom Penh that involves running television and radio public service announcement that instruct people on how to drive safely and putting up stickers in schools and on the streets.

Mariane Pearl wrote in Glamour that her driver told her that in a single month her driver lost five family members, all in separate car accidents. On the traffic in Phnom Penh, she wrote: Suddenly I notice the chaotic traffic swirling around us. A family of five passes us, all riding on a single motorcycle. Bicycle rickshaws weave among buffalo-drawn carts. There is a complete absence of order or logic.” [Source: Mariane Pearl, Glamour, August 1, 2006]

Bus Crashes in Cambodia

In February 2012, two foreign tourists were killed and over 40 people injured when a bus crashed in Koh Kong province in Cambodia. The coach flipped into its side while driving from Sihanoukville province to the northwestern province of Koh Kong . A 22-year-old Russian woman and a 72-years-old Austrian woman were killed, police said. Along with the other 44 passenger injured in the crash, a local villager, who was selling fruit on the roadside, was also hurt when the bus hit her.

In July 2011, seven foreign tourists suffered serious injuries after a bus crashed into a truck in Cambodia. Four South Koreans and three Spaniards were injured when the bus carrying 34 passengers collided with a parked truck while en route to Vietnam from the Cambodian tourist hub of Siem Reap, DPA reported. A police official said the driver fled the scene.

Railroads in Cambodia

Cambodia's single railway line runs for 160 miles between Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville on the Gulf of Thailand coast. Completed in 1969, a year before the Cambodian civil war began, the train passes through lovely southern Cambodian countryside and is particularly beautiful after Kampot, where the tracks wind along the sea at the edge of the Elephant Mountains. Trains from Phnom Penh to Battambang Province depart from Phnom Penh about 5:00am or 6:00am with travel taking much of the day.

According to Seat61.com: “Until recently just one train service remained in Cambodia, from Battambang to Phnom Penh. Previously running every second day, in 2006 it went down to once a week, and in early 2009 it stopped running altogether. There are now no regular passenger trains in Cambodia, only buses. But Cambodian & foreign backers plan to bring back Cambodia's railways from the dead. Although there have been a few problems recently, a company called Toll Royal Railway (www.tollroyalrailway.com) has been given a 30 year concession to repair and operate the railway, and in 2013 it's planned to reopen both the Southern Line from Phnom Penh to Kampot & Sihanoukville (254 km) and the Northern Line from Phnom Penh to Battambang, Sisophon & Poiphet on the Thai border (388 km). Indeed, I have witnessed the new ballast and sleepers being laid between Sisophon and Poipet myself in late 2011. Thai and Cambodian governments have agreed to link their rail systems again for the first time since 1946, and we could see Bangkok to Phnom Penh passenger trains in 2014. One freight service is already back up & running, and the rehabilitation of Phnom Penh's historic main station is already under way. See the official Toll site, www.tollroyalrailway.com.

In 1994, three Westerners and 11 people were pulled off the train, near Kampot, and killed. The Westerners were abducted and held for ransom before being executed. For several years after that employees at train offices were forbidden from selling tickets to foreigners. Beginning in 1998, articles began appearing in magazines by travelers who took the train and lived to tell about it.

In January 2012 Russ Juskalian wrote in Smithsonian magazine: “Passenger trains hadn’t run in over a year. And for quite some time before that, there had been only one train a week, taking about 16 hours to cover a route that took only five hours by bus; at speeds just faster than a jog, the train tended to break down or derail. At the train yard in Phnom Penh, I saw rows of derelict cars, some with interiors overgrown with plants, others whose floors had entirely rotted out. All that was left was the norry. [Source: Russ Juskalian, Smithsonian magazine, January 2011 =]

Mark Magnier wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “But there's movement down the line. The government plans to revamp the nation's two modest state-owned rail lines -- a 230-mile stretch from Phnom Penh to the border with Thailand and a 150-mile stretch from the capital to the southwestern Sihanoukville port. Government officials envision turning the system over to private operators by early 2012. [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, April 27, 2010 }{]

History of Cambodian Railroads

In the 1920s, the French started work on a railroad that would eventually run 650 kilometers across Cambodia in two major sections: the first from the Thai border, via Battambang, to Phnom Penh; the second from Phnom Penh to the coastal city of Sihanoukville to the south. The rail was a single line of meter-wide track. The 370-kilometer from Phnom Penh to the border with Thailand was completed by the French in 1942.

The 240-kilometer railway line between Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville was completed with help from China and Germany in 1969, a year before the Cambodian civil war began. The rail link between Thailand and Cambodia was cut in 1962 in a dispute over a Buddhist temple and was never restored. Many of the bridges on the route have been destroyed or are too old to use and the bed has long since been relieved of it gravel and rails. To restore the rail would cost tens of millions dollars.

During the Khmer Rouge days, there were no trains, only endless walking by starving people, One man who lives beside the tracks told the Los Angeles Times 50-year-old wife was hacked with a machete by a Khmer Rouge fighter for taking a few bananas. "It's hard to think about," she says. From 1979 to the late 1990s, when a guerrilla war simmered in the country, remnants of the Khmer Rouge mined the railroad and frequently ambushed trains. An official from the Cambodian Ministry of Public Works and Transport told Smithsonian magazine in 2011 that the ministry couldn’t guarantee that the rails were completely cleared of land mines.

In the post-Khmer Rouge era travel was regarded as so dangerous that trains were led by flat cars mounted with machine guns and weighted down with railroad ties to deactivate mines (damage to a flat car was better than damage to a locomotive). One man who was on three trains between 1979 and 1996 that were ambushed with mines told the International Herald Tribune, “I don’t know how many people were killed each time because I ran as fast as I could in the opposite direction. They liked to execute train drivers.”

Backpackers Killed by the Khmer Rouge in 1994

On July 26, 1994, Khmer Rouge guerrillas ambushed the Phnom Penh-Sihanoukville train with mines in southern Cambodian countryside, near the of Kampot, where the railway winds along the sea at the edge of the Elephant mountains. The guerillas gunned down 11 Cambodian and three Vietnamese passengers and abducted scores of people, including three young Western backpackers—David Wilson of Australia, Mark Slater of Britain and Jean-Michel Braquet of France, all tourists in their late 20s

The three backpackers were held for ransom for two months while the government attempted to negotiate their release. The hostage-takers demanded $150,000. Ultimately the negotiations amounted to nothing and the backpackers were killed by blows to their heads the orders of Gen. Sam Bith, a Khmer Rouge leader. Their bodies were found in October 1994 in a shallow grave after the government raided a Khmer Rouge camp in the Vine Mountains 150 mile south of Phnom Penh. In 1994, Sam Bith defected to the government and was made a general in the Cambodian army.

The murders were reportedly carried out by Nuon Paet, who served in the Khmer Rouge under Sam Bith. In 1998, Nuon Paet was captured when he was lured to the Phnom Penh with the promise of a lucrative business deal. "Police played trick to bring the tiger from his lair," Hun Sen boasted. The move was seen an effort by Hun Sen to earn legitimacy in the eyes of western nations.

Norries: Cambodia’s Bamboo Train

Reporting from Battambang,Mark Magnier wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “It rattles along at 20 miles an hour, swaying back and forth on uneven rails, the engine so loud it makes your teeth hurt. Then, rather unceremoniously, it runs out of gas and dies. And you find yourself stranded in the middle of Cambodia on a handmade "norry" train, feeling a bit exposed on a 25-square-foot platform made of bamboo and scrap metal attached to wheels salvaged from old tanks. Picture one of those hand-pump rail cars depicted in old Westerns, and you're close. It's powered (when it has gas) by a converted outboard engine. The brakes (when it has gas and you need brakes) are a wooden board pushed against the wheels. No seats. [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, April 27, 2010 }{]

“Pretty soon, driver Path Chanthorn starts pushing the disabled norry with hands that are missing a few fingers from a run-in with a water buffalo -- "a strong cow," he mutters. Another norry approaches from the opposite direction, every inch of its platform covered by a dozen people headed for a festival. With a single track to ride on, etiquette dictates that the norry with the lighter load be taken apart so the other can pass. So Chanthorn and his assistant quickly dismantle their vehicle and let the other one by, then put theirs back together again, all within minutes. }{

“All this bamboo and scrap metal give it a makeshift appearance, and appearances do not deceive."It shows how ingenious people can be," says Ith Sorn, 55, who's been driving norries for three decades. "Cambodians came up with this when they had almost nothing." The unique mode of transportation saw its heyday in the 1980s when other vehicles were scarce. "There were bombs and mines everywhere, roads were destroyed and rail cars a shambles," says Kot Sareurn, 50, a union leader for 23 norry drivers in Battambang, a picturesque provincial capital along the tranquil Sangker River. "Norries helped a lot of people survive, get to hospitals, get food." }{

“By the early 1980s, as Cambodia started to emerge from the nightmare, people remembered the small vehicles used by rail workers in the 1960s to repair the tracks and started building their own. The norry, a name some say is derived from a mispronunciation of "lorry," was born. “Initially operators "rowed" the norries with poles, gondola-style, carrying loads of up to 40 people, eight cows or three tons of rice. After a few years, small gas engines were added. Drivers said that at the peak, thousands of norries operated throughout Cambodia, charging villagers only a few cents for a ride but still making a decent living with so many people and possessions jammed aboard. }{

Russ Juskalian wrote in Smithsonian magazine: ““A norry is basically a breadbox-size motor on top of a bed-size bamboo platform on top of two independent sets of metal wheels—all held together by gravity. It’s built from bamboo, old tank parts and motors ripped from broken motorbikes, rice harvesters and tractors. To accelerate, the driver slides the motor backward, using a stick as a lever, to create enough tension in the rubber belt to rotate the rear axle. Though no two norries are identical, a failing part can be swapped with a replacement in a few seconds. Norries are technically illegal but nonetheless vital and, if you know where to look, ubiquitous.” [Source: Russ Juskalian, Smithsonian magazine, January 2011 =]

“A man sitting on the rails had a prosthetic left leg, a few gold teeth and a disarming smile. He gave his name as Sean Seurm and his age as 66. He said he was a norry driver but complained that the local travelers used his services less often these days, having been replaced by foreign tourists looking for a 20-minute jaunt into the countryside. “We have less business, and now we have to pay the police,” said Seurm’s wife, Phek Teorng. Shaking down a norry driver ferrying locals at 50 cents a ride had probably not been worth the trouble, but tourists pay ten times that. =

The norry itself “was less sturdy than I had imagined, with gaps in the bamboo wide enough to jam a finger through, and the platform vibrated at just the right frequency to make my legs itch. Our driver, standing near the back, used a headlamp as a signaling device for road crossings and upcoming stations, turning the rails to silver streaks darting into the undergrowth. I was mesmerized—until a shrub smacked me in the face. When another took a small chunk out of my right sleeve, I felt like a tyro for riding too close to the edge. =

“Most of the rail was warped into a comical squiggle, as if it had been made of plastic and then deformed by a massive hair dryer. In some places, there were breaches in the rail more than four inches wide. With nothing to distract me, I focused meditatively on the click-CLANK-jolt, click-CLANK-jolt, click-CLANK-jolt of the ride, barely reacting when the norry hit a particularly bad gap in the track and the platform jumped the front axle and slid down the rail with all of us still seated.” =

Traveling on Small Local Norries

Russ Juskalian wrote in Smithsonian magazine: “I went to Cambodia to ride the norries and to get a glimpse of rural life along the way. “I started just outside Battambang, on a 170-mile-long stretch of what was once the Northern Line. The “norry station” was little more than a few teak and bamboo homes at the dusty confluence of a dirt road and a set of old rails. When Rithea and I arrived, there were chickens, dogs and children scampering about and two cops lounging in the shade, chatting with the locals. Bamboo platforms, disembodied engines and old tank wheels welded in pairs to heavy axles were stacked near the tracks. = [Source: Russ Juskalian, Smithsonian magazine, January 2011 =]

“Over the next hour, at least five small groups of Western backpackers arrived to ride the norry. None of the locals was forthcoming when Rithea asked about our chances of catching one to Phnum Thippadei, about 18 miles away. A man with a tattoo of Angkor Wat on his chest intimated that we had no choice but to wait for the local vegetable norry, which wouldn’t leave until 4 a.m. When we came back to board it, the sky was dotted with glittering stars, the tiniest slice of crescent moon to the east, and the Milky Way’s surprisingly visible Great Rift. =

“As I scrambled onto the norry to Phnum Thippadei, I inhaled an almost sickly sweet scent of overripe fruit; in addition to a few Cambodian women, we were carrying cargo that included a pile of spiky jackfruit the size of watermelons. “They sell vegetables along the way,” said Rithea as we rolled to a brief stop at a village. Most of the produce was dropped off, and before we pulled away, I saw nylon mats being unrolled and vegetables being set up by the rail—an impromptu market. =

“As the stars grew faint and the sky slowly faded to pink and yellow pastels ahead of a not-yet-risen sun, villagers lighted small gas lanterns at railside huts. At each stop, always where a dirt road intersected the rail, I heard voices droning in the distance. Rithea said they were monks chanting morning prayers or intoning the mournful words of a funeral or singing Buddhist poetry. The sun was low in the sky when we pulled into Phnum Thippadei. A few dozen people squatted by the track or sat in plastic chairs eating a breakfast of ka tieu, a noodle soup. After some searching, we found a norry driver named Yan Baem and his sidekick, La Vanda, who dressed like a Miami bon vivant in a patterned white shirt with a wide collar, white pants and flip-flops. They said they’d take us to Moung Roessei, about 15 miles down the line, where Rithea thought we could get a norry to Pursat. =

“Now that the sun was up, I could see why the going was so rough: the tracks were woefully misaligned. After a quick inspection, Baem and Vanda reassembled the norry and pressed on, a bit slower than before. We were a few miles from the nearest village when we ran out of gas. The motor, a small thing perched on the back of a queen-size bamboo platform, spat out a few tubercular-sounding coughs and gave up. There were three of us riding this Frankenstein’s pump trolley....including my interpreter and the conductor, a short, elderly man with sunbaked skin and the permanent squint of failing eyesight....As the norry rolled to a slow stop, sweat bloomed on the skin almost instantly. =

“The old man pointed down the line and mumbled in his native Khmer. “His house is nearby,” said Phichith Rithea, the 22-year-old interpreter. “He says it’s about 500 meters.” All I could see was heat-rippled air. Rithea pushed until he was ready to collapse, and the old man mumbled again. “He says we are nearly there,” Rithea translated as I took my turn pushing. The old man told me to walk on one of the rails to avoid snakes sunning on the metal ties. I slowed down as we approached a lone wooden train car converted to a house near where the old man had pointed. “That’s not it,” said Rithea. My head spun with heat and exhaustion. When we reached the old man’s house, we estimated that it was more than a mile from where we had broken down. The conductor filled our tank with a light-green liquid he kept in one-liter Coke bottles, and we were on our way, headed toward the capital, Phnom Penh.” =

Traveling on Bigger Norries

Russ Juskalian wrote in Smithsonian magazine: “A bit up the track, I saw four men loading a norry with the parts of a much bigger one built out of two-by-fours. The driver told us that the big norry was used to carry lumber from Pursat to Moung Roessei, Phnum Thippadei and Battambang, but that it was cheaper to transport the big norry back to Pursat on the smaller one. He said we could join them for the roughly 50-mile trip, no charge, though I insisted we pay, $10 for the two of us. [Source: Russ Juskalian, Smithsonian magazine, January 2011 =]

“Less than a mile out, a norry stacked high with timber came clacking at us head-on. Fortunately, norry crews have developed an etiquette for dealing with such situations: the crew from the more heavily laden norry is obliged to help disassemble the lighter one, and, after passing it, reassemble it on the track. The whole process usually takes about a minute, since two people can carry a typical bamboo norry. But the big two-by-four platform required six of us lifting with all our strength. Aside from narrowly missing a few cows foraging around the tracks, we made it to Pursat without incident. The norry station was a busy cluster of railside huts where one could buy food, drink and basic supplies. I had planned to leave the next morning, but a bout of food poisoning—was it the bai sach chrouk?—delayed us a day. =

“On our second morning, a thin, shirtless young man named Nem Neang asked if I wanted a ride to Bamnak, where he would be driving a passenger norry in about 15 minutes. Just what I needed. He said there were usually ten norries a day from Pursat, and for an average day of work he would collect 30,000 to 40,000 Cambodia riel (roughly $7 to $10). But he worried that the railroad was going to be improved—the Cambodian government is working on it— and that the laws against norries might actually be enforced. =

“Neang’s norry was crowded with 32 passengers, each of whom had paid the equivalent of 75 cents or less for the ride. At an early stop, a motorbike was brought on, and several passengers had to sit on it until more room opened up. Among this tightly packed crowd—a tangle of legs, bags and chatter—I met a Muslim woman named Khortayas, her hair covered in a floral head scarf, on her way to visit her sister in Bamnak. A merchant named Rath told me she took the norry twice each month to bring back beds to sell. =

“Near the town of Phumi O Spean, a small white dog started chasing the norry, trailing us relentlessly. As we slowed, the dog darted ahead, briefly running up the track as if it were our leader. The absurdity of the scene caused a minor sensation, and somebody suggested that the dog wanted a ride. Neang stopped, picked up the pup and brought it aboard. Our new canine friend rode the rest of the way, being stroked by one or another of the passengers or standing with two paws on the driver’s lap. =

“At Bamnak, we switched to a norry carrying concrete pipes, refined sugar, soy milk, crates of eggs and other supplies. In Kdol, we joined a young mother and her child on a norry returning from a lumber delivery. And in Romeas, we chartered a norry driven by a man who had bloodshot eyes and smelled of moonshine. The town of Bat Doeng had no guesthouse, but our norry driver’s brother, a construction worker named Seik Than, lived nearby and offered to let us stay with him. He and his wife, Chhorn Vany, grilled a whole chicken for our dinner. =

“It was in Bat Doeng that we boarded our final norry, the one driven by the man with the bum ankle and low fuel. Having to push part of the way made the journey to Trapeang Leuk seem a lot longer than 15-odd miles. From there—basically the end of the line—we caught a tuk-tuk, a type of auto-rickshaw, for the five-mile ride to Phnom Penh and a hot shower in a backpackers’ hotel. It felt like the height of luxury. “ =

End of the Norries?

Mark Magnier wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Now a government plan to upgrade the country's rail system may end up forever stranding the norry, an ingenious response to the decades of war, destruction and dire poverty that have afflicted Cambodia. The humble norry is a reminder of how much Cambodians lost, but it also speaks to their persevering spirit. All but left for dead under Pol Pot's genocidal regime, they defied the odds to rebuild, sometimes literally: Witness the land mine victims who picked up their lives by crafting homemade wooden limbs. [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, April 27, 2010 }{]

“These days, the few hundred remaining norries are relegated to short distances in a few provinces, more an oddity for tourists than the lifeblood they once represented, as trucks, public buses and motorbikes fill the gap. They're still privately owned, but nowadays companies sometimes own several of them, splitting the profits with drivers. Safety? Not a problem, Sorn says: "I've never had a bad accident. Only occasionally, if it's overloaded, we'll break down and some goats tumble off." }{

“They've clung to life thanks to the tourists and Cambodia's catatonic rail system. The last train anyone saw around Battambang's Odombang station lumbered through more than a year ago. The norry drivers have since taken over the tiny station, sleeping in hammocks on the platform, littering its dirt floor with their cigarette wrappers. }{

“But there's movement down the line. The government plans to revamp the nation's two modest state-owned rail lines -- a 230-mile stretch from Phnom Penh to the border with Thailand completed by the French in 1942, and a 150-mile stretch from the capital to the southwestern Sihanoukville port finished with help from China and Germany in 1969. Government officials envision turning the system over to private operators by early 2012. }{

“This would almost certainly see the go-cart-like norries muscled aside by "real" trains. Norries are dangerous, shabby-looking and won't last in the 21st high-tech century," says Touch Chankosal, an official with the Ministry of Public Works and Transport. "Real trains going at over 30 miles per hour would run right over them. The drivers' lives are worth more than preserving norries." Union leader Sareurn has little nostalgia for the contraptions that have earned his keep for decades. "If the government provides compensation, we'll all stop the next day," he says. }{

“Others aren't quite so sanguine. "I'm worried, but what can you do?" says Chanthorn, 37, who's been driving since he was 10. "The rails belong to the government. We're just borrowing them." Recently, more foreigners have been riding his norry, Sorn says, including three with big bellies who initially balked, thinking it too flimsy to support them. "They worried that the bamboo would break, but bamboo is very strong," he says. "If I can carry eight cows, I can certainly carry a few fat foreigners." }{

Cambodia Angkor Air

Cambodia Angkor Air is the national flag carrier airline of Cambodia. Headquartered in Phnom Penh, the airline is owned by the Cambodian government (51 percent) and Vietnam Airlines (49 percent). Cambodia Angkor Air was founded on 31 July 2009, replacing national airline Royal Air Cambodge, which had gone bankrupt in 2001. [Source: Wikipedia]

Cambodia Angkor Air concentrates on serving tourist routes within Cambodia, most notably catering for visitors of Angkor Wat. It serves the following destinations. A) Cambodia: 1) Phnom Penh – Phnom Penh International Airport; 2) Siem Reap – Siem Reap International Airport; and 3) Sihanoukville – Sihanoukville International Airport. B) Thailand: Bangkok – Suvarnabhumi Airport. C) Vietnam: 1) Ho Chi Minh City – Tan Son Nhat International Airport; and 2) Hanoi – Noi Bai International Airport.

The are plans to start services to : A) China: Guangzhou – Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport Future; B) Hong Kong – Hong Kong International Airport Future; C) Singapore – Singapore Changi Airport Future

Cambodia Angkor Air's aircraft are loaned from Vietnam Airlines and as of January 2013, the Cambodia Angkor Air fleet consists of the following leased aircraft: with an average age of 1.0 years, which are all operated on behalf of Vietnam Airlines: 1) five Airbus A321-200 (capable of carrying 170 passengers); and 2) two ATR 72-500 (capable of carrying 60 passengers).

In July 2009, AFP reported: “Cambodia launched its new national airline, Cambodia Angkor Air, giving the Southeast Asian country its first flag carrier since a previous effort folded in 2001. It is hoped the airline, a joint venture between the government and Vietnam Airlines, will encourage tourism and promote Cambodia, Prime Minister Hun Sen said during the ceremony at Phnom Penh International Airport. Hun Sen urged airline officials to compete hard with other carriers to "make Cambodia Angkor Air successful and ensure national revenue". The last national carrier, Royal Air Cambodge, folded in 2001 after running up losses of $30 million. Deputy Prime Minister Sok An said Cambodia Angkor Air, which has capitalisation of $100 million, is expected to boost his country's tourism sector, but "the government will not be responsible for any loss and debt". After the opening ceremony, Cambodian and Vietnamese officials flew to seaside resort Sihanoukville and Siem Reap, the gateway to the famed Angkor Wat temples. [Source: AFP- Jiji, July 27, 2009]

Defunct Airlines: Royal Air Cambodge and Siem Reap Airways

Royal Air Cambodge (RAC) was the flag carrier airline of Cambodia. Headquartered in Phnom Penh, it operated from 1994 to 2001 and shut down operations after running up $30 million in debts. RAC was 60 percent owed by the Cambodian government and 40 percent owned by Naluri, a Malaysian company (formerly known as Malaysian Helicopter Service). RAC leased its planes from the Malaysian Airlines. It had a fleet of four planes: one ATR 72-200, one Boeing 737-200 and two Boeing 737-400s (leased from Malaysia Airlines).

Cambodia Travel News reported: Due to its debt-ridden situation, RAC fails to pay the rental fees so its planes have been repossessed. It is estimated that RAC owes Malaysian Airline about US$ 30 million. An airline official said that the issued air tickets will be reimbursed, but this information has not been confirmed. RAC used to be a major player in flying between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap; the latter of which houses the world's famous Angkor Wat and other Khmer complex. Before its closure, RAC operates about 3-4 flights a day on this domestic route. Currently, the Siem Reap Airways (FT) is the sole carrier, operating two flights a day from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap and return.

Siem Reap Airways is a defunct airline based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. It operated domestic and international services. Its main base was Phnom Penh International Airport, with hubs at Bangkok International Airport and Angkor International Airport, Siem Reap. The airline ceased operations in December 2008 after it appeared on the European Union list of prohibited carriers— and was therefore banned from operating services of any kind within any E.U.—due to unacceptable safety standards.

Siem Reap Airways served the following destinations: Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City and Pakse, Laos. It fleet included the following aircraft: 2 Airbus A320-232 (operated by Bangkok Airways) and 1 ATR 72-500 (operated by Bangkok Airways)

Air Accidents

In September 1997, a Vietnam Airlines twin-engine, Russian-built Tupolev 134-B crashed heavy monsoon rain as it attempted to land at Phnom Penh’s international airport, killing 64 of the 66 people on board. The plane crashed into palm trees and bamboo and skidded into a rice paddy and exploded. Only two infants, a Thai boy and a Vietnamese boy, survived. After the crash Vietnam Airlines, suspended the use of Tupolev Planes.

When a Vietnam Airlines plane crashed near Phnom Penh airport in 1997, the first people on the scene were villagers who took wallets and purses from corpses, carted away luggage and took clothes off the dead. Police officers joined in rather than tried to stop them. Villagers even made off with the black box flight recorder and didn’t return it until they received a reward. One villager told AP, "It was a stroke of good luck for a lot of people living around here.”

In July 2005, Associated Press reported: An airport near Cambodia’s famed Angkor temples was closed today after a Vietnam Airlines jet overshot a runway in adverse weather conditions and plowed into a nearby field, a manager at the facility said. None of the 98 people aboard the Airbus A320 from Ho Chi Minh City was injured in the accident which occurred in the evening at Siem Reap International Airport. However, the plane was lodged in the ground and the airport was shut while technicians tried to drag it out of the way. The plane "moved off the runway after landing under adverse weather conditions,’’ said a statement from Khek Norinda, manager of Cambodia Airport Management Services Ltd., which operates the airport. "The entire aircraft is stuck into the ground and experts are on the field to remove the A320 by lifting it up and dragging it back on the runway,’’ he said. Ten flights, eight of them international, were canceled late yesterday and the airport was closed. It was partially reopened today for small aircraft, Khek Norinda said. Mao Has Vannal, the head of Cambodia’s civil aviation authority, said they were launching an investigation into the incident. [Source: Associated Press, July 06, 2005]

Plane Crash in Cambodia in 2007 Kills 22

On June 25, 2007, PMTair Flight 241—a Russian-made Antonov-24 plane— crashed in southwestern Cambodia, northeast of Bokor Mountain in Kampot Province. All of the 22 people on board, most of whom were South Korean tourists, were killed. The aircraft was making a domestic flight from Angkor International Airport in Siem Reap to Sihanoukville International Airport in Sihanoukville, Cambodia.

Of the sixteen passengers, 13 were South Koreans and three were from the Czech Republic. The Korean passengers were part of a tour group. The crew of six was made up of an Uzbekistani pilot and two Cambodian co-pilots, a Cambodian flight engineer and two Cambodian flight attendants.

The airplane crashed about five minutes before it was due to land in Sihanoukville. The Cambodian government searched for the crashed plane and possible survivors by mobilizing its military forces and with aid of Thailand based US Naval P-3C. Bad weather and the location of crash site, deep in the jungle, made the efforts of search and rescue teams difficult. Eventually, Prime Minister Hun Sen announced officially that the SAR team located the crash site and confirmed the death of all 22 passengers. Cambodian rescue teams said they would collect the bodies of the victims and transport them to Phnom Penh as soon as possible. The crash site is 167 kilometers South of Phnom Penh.

AFP reported: “A chartered tourist plane that disappeared in Cambodia likely crashed in bad weather, officials said as more than 1,000 rescuers continued to scour dense forests for the wreck. The Russian-made AN-24, which disappeared from radar about 40 minutes after leaving Siem Reap and crashed in the mountains of southern Kampot province, about 50 kilometers (30 miles) from its destination. [Source: AFP, June 26, 2007 ^^]

Cambodia's military commander-in-chief General Ke Kim Yan said an initial investigation showed that bad weather, rather than a mechanical failure, had likely brought the plane down. "Our first evaluation of the cause of the plane crash is bad weather," he said, adding that poor visibility had forced the aircraft to divert through the mountains. Rain also hampered rescue efforts, forcing those on the ground to trek along kilometers (miles) of muddy trails. Prime Minister Hun Sen, who arrived in Kampot on Tuesday, offered $5,000 to anyone who located the crash site. ^^

South Korean diplomats told AFP they had identified all 13 Koreans on board, including two boys aged two and seven years old. All had been part of a tour group, they said. The crash is the first major air disaster to strike Cambodia in a decade, but highlights the country's need to bolster domestic air safety amid a rise in tourist arrivals. The plane was operated by Progress Multi Transportation (PMT) Air, which runs mainly domestic flights. It has had at least three accidents or in-flight emergencies in the past two years, and was temporarily grounded at one point. PMT opened a route between Siem Reap and Sihanoukville in January. It also flies between Siem Reap and Seoul, according to its website. South Korea's ministry of construction and transportation has called for PMT's fleet to undergo safety checks. ^^

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourism of Cambodia, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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